The Case for International Surveillance and Verification

A. Walter Dorn

This monograph was originally published as two issues: Peace Research Reviews, Vol. X, No.5&6, 1987 © W. Dorn, 1987.
(For figures, please see original publication.)

Comment by Arthur C. Clarke:
"Walter Dorn's Peacekeeping Satellites is most impressive and I congratulate him. I have found it a very useful reference while writing a forthcoming essay for TIME magazine."




  1. Concept and Functions
    Verification and Monitoring; Conflict and Crisis Monitoring; Peace-keeping; Natural Catastrophe Management
  2. An Overview: What? Why? How? Who? When and Where?
    Characterization and Inspiration
  3. Research Methodology and Sources


  1. View of Our World from Space
  2. Arms Control and Disarmament
    The Arms Race That Never Was; The Arms Race Continues; Successful Treaties; Verification of Treaties; An International Role in Verification; A United Nations Role in Verification
  3. Crisis Monitoring
    The United Nations and Crisis Monitoring
  4. Confrontation or Cooperation in Outer Space
    Cooperation in Space; Peaceful Uses of Satellite Remote Sensing; The United Nations and Outer Space


  1. Background Science
    Satellite Launch and Orbit; Resolution: What Can They See? Useful Definitions
  2. Background History
    Satellite Firsts; History of the American Reconnaissance Satellite Program
  3. Military Satellites Today
    Military Secrecy; American Military Satellites; Space Stations; Soviet Military Satellites; Other Military Satellite Programs
  4. Civilian Programs
    American Programs; Canadian Capabilities; European Capabilities; Programs of Other Nations
    Data Requirements; Image Processing and Interpretation; Evolution and Cost


  1. International Verification Proposals: 1919-1933
  2. The United Nations
    The U.N. and The Control of Disarmament; The U.N. and International Security
  3. Eisenhower's Open Skies Proposal
  4. The Mccloy-Zorin Agreement and the IDO
  5. Enter the Satellite
  6. The Kurtz Vision
    Howard & Harriet Kurtz; The Idea Catches On
  7. The Pugwash Discussions
  8. International Satellite Monitoring Agency
    The French Proposal; The UN Report; Responses From NGOs, Academia and Individuals
  9. The Canadian PAXSAT Studies
  10. Regional Satellite Monitoring Agencies
  11. World Space Organization
  12. Other Functions of an IVO


  1. A. Historical Precedents
    The Soviet Reaction to Open Skies; Creating a Climate Of Legitimacy
  2. The ISMA Proposal in the General Assembly
    UNSSOD I; Initial Views of Member States on ISMA; Subsequent UN Developments
  3. Current Government Positions
    European; Non-Aligned Countries; The United States; The Soviet Union; Canada; Responses to "Verification In All Its Aspects"; The United Nations Secretary-General


  1. By Action in the United Nations
  2. By a Consortium of Nations
  3. By Private/Non-governmental Organizations





Satellites are now serving humanity in many ways. They are used to observe weather patterns, map land areas, investigate soil conditions, find mineral deposits, estimate crop yields, and monitor lumber resources. Satellites are also used to spot forest fires, track wildlife and locate survivors of plane crashes and ship wrecks. They are used to send electronic signals around the globe, such as the television programs that are "live via satellite". Information from satellites is available to (and is being used by) people in over a hundred countries.

There is another function which satellites could perform for humankind: to directly promote international peace and security through global observation. A satellite which could do this might be called a peace-keeping satellite.


A peace-keeping satellite is defined as an observation satellite operated under the aegis of the international community which would be instrumental in performing one or more of the following functions:

  1. verifying international treaties, especially arms control and disarmament treaties;
  2. monitoring conflicts or crises;
  3. supporting peace-keeping operations, such as those performed by the United Nations;
  4. managing natural catastrophes.

Such a peace-keeping satellite would enhance international peace and security by providing reliable, neutral information on security-threatening or security-enhancing developments anywhere on the planet. A particularly appealing feature of this concept is that the information would be collected by an international body rather than by separate nations.

The idea of developing an international role in arms control verification and crisis monitoring is not new; people had suggested it long before satellites came into being, and well before the United Nations was created. Satellite technology, however, has made available a new form of non-intrusive observation that was formerly impossible. Placed at the service of the international community, this technology would greatly enhance international peace and security.

The best known proposal for a peace-keeping satellite system was made by the government of France at the first U.N. Special on Disarmament (UNSSOD I) in 1978. The name used was International Satellite Monitoring Agency (ISMA). Similar proposals have been put forward by other governments (including France, the Netherlands, Italy, recently by the Soviet Union and at a much earlier date by the United States), by non-governmental organizations (including Pugwash and several peace groups) and by many individuals.

The possible functions of a peace-keeping satellite are now elaborated in more detail.

Verification and Monitoring

Verification is an essential part of any arms control or disarmament agreement. It is needed not only to detect violations of a treaty but also to strengthen security through reassurance and confidence-building. Verification methods which are unobtrusive and reliable are necessary.

Since the early 1960's, satellites from both the United States and the Soviet Union states have been used to monitor each other's territory - and the territory of most other countries as well. Most of these satellites are used to verify arms control agreements and thus they qualify as a type of peace-keeping satellite (unilateral observation type). Beginning with the Kennedy administration, American satellites have served an unprecedented role in preserving peace by determining both the number and the capabilities of Soviet missiles.

For example, before the development of reconnaissance satellites, the U.S.A. relied on high flying U-2 aircraft to count missiles in the U.S.S.R.. However these aircraft supplied only limited coverage. During the late 1950's, without adequate knowledge of Soviet activities, the U.S. Department of Defense warned that the Soviets had entered into a "production phase" of a new type of weapon: the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). They forecast a Soviet ICBM force of over 600 missiles by 1961. However, observation satellites, which first came into service in 1961, revealed that less than two dozen such missiles had in fact been produced. The dreaded "missile gap" was fiction and American fears were unwarranted.

This was also the case for the fictional "bomber gap" of the late 1950s. The U.S. military had predicted that the Soviet Union would produce hundreds of manned bombers. The U-2 high altitude aircraft exposed this bomber gap, just as reconnaissance satellites exposed the missile gap. In both cases, the only real gap in both cases was an "intelligence gap". An intelligence gap, however, can be very dangerous, since worst case estimates tend to predominate under conditions of ignorance. The arms build-up resulted in an overwhelming U.S. superiority by 1961, in both quantity and quality of weapons, and created a real gap which the Soviets, in turn, sought for over a decade to close. If reconnaissance information had been available in the 1950's, the superpower arms race would probably not have begun with such surges. Perhaps President Eisenhower's dreams of a disarmed world and a balanced U.S. budget would have been realized.

The reconnaissance satellite capabilities of the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. have made possible all the bilateral arms control agreements of the last two decades, in particular the ABM and SALT treaties. Just as the reconnaissance satellite programs of the superpowers have added a positive element to their national security, so it is envisaged that the development of an international or multilateral surveillance satellite would contribute to the peace and security of all countries, including that of the superpowers. It could be a crucial step for mankind in restoring stability to our unsettled world.

Conflict and Crisis Monitoring

Peace-keeping satellites could also be used to monitor conflicts at "trouble spots" anywhere in the world. The world has seen many conflicts in recent years, particularly in the Middle East. International crises often arise from an escalation of conflict between two nations or alliances. Many people think that escalation into nuclear war during a conflict is the most likely manner in which such a war might be started. During a conflict or a crisis, peace-keeping satellites could provide outside, trustworthy information about both negative developments (such as troop movements towards a border, the deployment of new weapons, etc.) and positive developments (such as troop withdrawals and cease-fires). This information would prove invaluable for those whose efforts are directed towards peace-keeping and the negotiation of a settlement.

Before and during wars, "misinformation" and even "disinformation" is often used by belligerent parties to support new campaigns. Exaggerated and untruthful statements can be used to generate fear and to justify not only an arms build-up but also acts of war. Accurate information will in general help to diffuse a crisis and thus add considerably to international peace and security. Peace-keeping forces provided with good facilities to monitor conflicts are better able to keep a situation under control.


The United Nations has conducted 13 peace-keeping missions since it was created in 1945. Six of these were "observer missions" and seven involved peace-keeping forces. In both types of missions, manned observation posts were maintained. Satellite monitoring has not yet played a role in any peace-keeping mission. The information from the proposed peace-keeping satellite system could be used to strengthen the monitoring capabilities of U.N. peace-keeping forces and other U.N. peace-keeping and peace-making efforts.

Natural Catastrophe Management

In the case of a crisis caused by a natural catastrophe, such as a volcanic eruption or an earthquake, a surveillance satellite could help save human lives. It could also support resettlement and other peaceful efforts. There are other types of crises can also be better managed with the help of satellites. For example, an international "search and rescue" satellite system, called COSPAS/SARSAT, which is already in operation, locates downed planes and shipwrecks and has saved hundreds of lives. This project currently involves the cooperation of the United States, Canada, France and the Soviet Union, and the number of participating states is expected to grow.



This review covers the most basic questions one can ask about a peace-keeping satellite: What? Why? How? Who? When and Where? In the first chapter, the concept of a peace-keeping satellite is defined and introduced (What?). In Chapter II, "The Need", the motivation for having such a satellite system is examined (Why?) and its potential is illustrated with a few practical scenarios. In Chapter III, "The Technology", the required technological hardware is described (How?). The expertise of various countries is summarized and their potential contributions to an international peace-keeping satellite project are considered. In Chapter IV, "The Proposals", the specific proposals that have been made for international monitoring organizations using peace-keeping satellites are outlined. In Chapter V, "The Political Reactions: Past and Present", the political policies of various nations that help and hinder the development of a peace-keeping satellite system are examined (Who?). In Chapter VI, "Some Possible Scenarios", a few possible scenarios for the creation and development of a peace-keeping satellite system are examined (When and Where?). Finally, in Chapter VII, the desirability and the feasibility of peace-keeping satellites are assessed.

The review deals primarily with peace-keeping satellites performing photoreconnaissance. Other activities such as electronic reconnaissance, missile launch detection and communication would also be an important part of monitoring and verification. The peace-keeping satellites considered in this review could potentially be used to observe objects in space as well on earth. Space-to-space observation could be important in verifying an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon treaty, for instance. This possibility has just recently drawn the attention of investigators (see Chapter IV).

The main goal of this work is to present a comprehensive review of the literature dealing with peace-keeping satellites and to discuss related technical and political topics.

Characterization and Inspiration

The peace-keeping satellite concept can be characterized by the intersecting area of three different fields of study (see Figure 1.1 [in hard copy]): 1. satellite remote sensing; 2. international law, including space law; and 3. peace studies, in particular, the role of international organizations in the maintenance of peace and security. These three aspects - technical, legal and political - are all essential when one contemplates the possibilities of establishing an international peace-keeping satellite agency.

At the heart of the peace-keeping satellite concept are the notions of "common security" and "internationalism". The former is a recognition that the security of any nation is dependent on the security of all the others; that the threat to the peace of any nation is one and the same as the threat to international peace and security (Canada, 1986b). The latter word describes the belief that a stronger international order involving greater international cooperation is necessary to maintain peace and security in this interdependent world.

To justify the adoption of bold and perhaps costly steps for ensuring international peace and security, one need only consider the serious nature of the arms race and the danger of nuclear proliferation and nuclear accidents. While everyone has become aware of the potential horrors of nuclear weapons, far less attention is being given to the matter of how to decrease the probability of accidents or conflicts which would give rise to their use. There appear to be only a limited number of measures which may reduce the danger. Hopefully, the nations of the world will find means to strengthen international security without the push of an unfortunate accident or an international crisis. In the age of nuclear weapons, there may not be the "second" chance.

The peace-keeping satellite proposal offers one alternative approach to strengthening international peace and security. Outer space, man's final frontier and "the common heritage of all mankind", could be the stage for a new project in international cooperation and the development of effective international peace-keeping.

In outer space, as on earth, mankind is faced with a choice. Man can use new developments in space science and technology either to increase his destructive power or to secure greater peace. Orbiting satellites can be used to enhance arms control treaties or to bring the battles of the earth into the heavens. International cooperation in space projects offers a striking contrast to the Star Wars scenarios. Not only would the presence of weapons in space be a destabilizing element in international arena but it would also correspond to an unprecedented arms race and further depletion of needed resources. Patricia Mishce (1984), in her article "Star Wars and the State of Our Souls" states that "we are at a crossroads in the arms race ... in our perceptions of national security ... in our relationships with outer space and with the earth ... what we do in outer space will be a mirror or image of our inner space, of the state of our souls".


This section provides a condensed list of the information sources and literature searching aids used during the preparation of this review. It is placed at the beginning of the review, rather than as an appendix, because it may help to further define the subject areas covered in the review and it will also indicate the people, groups and governments which have demonstrated an interest in the peace-keeping satellite concept.

The literature search was begun by turning to the Peace Research Abstracts (PRA) Journal. All abstracts of articles published from 1961 to the present under the following codes were scanned:

II-60 Verification or Inspection of Disarmament or Arms Control;
I-09 Control, Command, Communications, Intelligence;
X-39 Space Exploration;
I-01 Weapons Technology.

This searching method proved to be the most comprehensive and efficient method of locating publications. It was also an easy way to follow the development of important concepts - from the time of the first reconnaissance satellites to the present. Over 300 abstracts were found on the topics of the international control of disarmament or satellite reconnaissance. The articles of maximum interest were then obtained in their original form.

Information obtained directly from the PRA Journal is so indicated in the reference section with an appropriate abstract number (PRA Ref. No.). Two literature reviews from the Peace Research Reviews series, "Approaches to a Nuclear-Free Future" (Newcombe, 1982) and "History of Disarmament Negotiations" (Watson, 1967), also provided valuable references.

There is a surprisingly small, but growing, number of publications dealing with arms control verification (as noted in Tsipis et al., 1986). There is one bibliography devoted to the subject. The annotated bibliography of Scribner and Scott (1985) provides a list of articles on strategic nuclear arms control verification published in the period 1977-1984. Less than forty articles are listed which deal primarily with the subject of satellite verification. The journal "Arms Control Today" of the nonpartisan Arms Control Association has an excellent "Arms Control in Print" bibliography section which includes a small section on outer space, but no separate section on verification.

Other useful arms control bibliographies are provided in:

"Peace and Security", a quarterly periodical available from the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security (CIIPS, 1986-) and "Quarterly Strategic Bibliography", published by QSB Publishers (Alexandria, Virginia). Naturally the bibliographies at the end of many texts were also very helpful. Of special note is the bibliographical appendix to the book "Arms Control Verification: The Technologies that Make It Possible" by Tsipis et al. (1986).

There are (to the knowledge of the reviewer) only two books which are entirely devoted to the subject of satellite surveillance for arms control verification, and these deal primarily with the historical aspects of the American reconnaissance program. They are: Klass (1971) and Steinberg (1983). There are, however, a good many books with one or more chapters devoted to the subject of satellite surveillance for arms control verification. The book by Potter (1980) relates to the debate on the verifiability of the SALT II treaty and thus describes US satellite capabilities. Jasani (1978, 1982) writes extensively about the capabilities of military satellites of both superpowers and includes a significant amount of technical background material. Scribner et al. (1985) gives a good overview of the various verification practices and policies of the superpowers in relation to a range of existing and potential treaties - from the ABM treaty to a Comprehensive Test Ban. The excellent book by Krass (1985), "Verification: How Much is Enough?", examines in detail both the political and technical aspects of verification. In the book edited by Tsipis et al. (1986), several articles - with plenty of technical graphs and others - deal with the technology of image formation and remote sensing from satellites. Durch (1984) deals with the national interests and the military use of space - which include to a large extent the use of reconnaissance satellites. Further references on this subject are given in chapter III of this review.

The U.S. satellite reconnaissance program is maintained under the greatest secrecy, but due to a popular demand for information on this topic, many periodicals have carried articles describing the "spies-in-the-sky." An interesting overview of American intelligence activities is found in an article by (the now famous) Nicholas Daniloff (1979). The articles by Richelson (1985, 1986a, 1986b) are also quite informative in this area. A good source of new information about the reconnaissance program is provided in certain Congressional Records. On several occasions, material dealing with the peace-keeping satellite concept was placed in these records by Senator G. Brown (1979, 1982).

The Soviet space program is described in an inspiring article by Canby (1986). This in one of two articles on outer space by Canby which have appeared in National Geographic magazine, accompanied by pictures of the usual excellent National Geographic standard. The other is entitled "Satellites That Serve us" (Canby, 1983). Further information about the Soviet military satellite program can be obtained from Jasani (1982) and the SIPRI Yearbooks (Johnson, 1982; Jasani, 1986).

Current information about outer space projects and reconnaissance activities is best obtained from periodicals. Certain periodicals have continued to carry many informative articles relating to the technical or political aspects of space-based reconnaissance or the role of the international community in verification. A list would include:

Aviation Week and Space Technology: has a reputation for uncovering and publicizing secret military developments both in the US and the USSR.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: an especially good source for following the early proposals, such as Eisenhower's "Open Skies" proposal, and the early debates about the international atomic energy agency for the United Nations. Also a good source of information on the topic of the prevention of an arms race in outer space.

IEEE Spectrum: published a "Special Report on Verification" (IEEE, 1986) with a section on "Peace-keeping by Technical Means". Other special issues are "Space 25" (September, 1983) and "Technology in War and Peace" (October, 1982).

New Scientist: a good source for following current developments in European science and policy, including that dealing with outer space.

Peace Research Abstracts: provides short summaries of articles of value to the peace researcher. There is a coding system for the very extensive range of topics covered and those codes of special relevance to this topic are listed above.

RAND Papers Abstracts: presents the abstracts of RAND papers, which are an excellent source of technical information. Some of the early RAND papers are now of historical value, such as those which first proposed the development of reconnaissance satellites.

Scientific American:regularly publishes articles on arms control and disarmament. Several of relevance here are Greenwood (1973), Myrdal (1974) and Hafemeister et al. (1985).

Spaceflight: published by the British Interplanetary Society Ltd., this magazine offers news on the development of space programs around the world.

Space Policy: This journal, begun in 1985, provides current information about national space policies. Several articles have been written about ISMA. Includes a section containing abstracts of recent publications.

SIPRI Yearbook: an authoritative description of the defence related events that have taken place during the year. A record is kept of the name, launch date and orbit of the military satellites launched during the year in the section "Military Uses of Space."

United Nations Disarmament Yearbook: produced by the United Nations Department of Disarmament Affairs. It reviews all the issues discussed in the General Assembly (includes voting records), the First Committee, the Conference on Disarmament, the Disarmament Commission and various other U.N. bodies.

Most of the speeches, resolutions and initiatives proposed at the United Nations are reproduced in official U.N. documents. United Nations documents can be ordered from the U.N. Publications Office or bought at the U.N. bookstore. Certain foreign libraries also serve as holdings for U.N. documents, including the Canadian Institute for International Affairs (CIIA) library and University of Toronto library. The documents used in the preparation of this review were obtained directly from U.N. headquarters (where the author represents an NGO called Science for Peace), either through the Non-Governmental Organization office or at the Dag Hammarskjöld Library.

Perhaps the richest single source of information on the subject of peace-keeping satellites is the UN ISMA report, written by a group of governmental experts who were appointed by the Secretary-General. It is entitled "Implications of Establishing an International Satellite Monitoring Agency" (Secretary-General, 1981). The technology and international legal and political climate have changed since then, but this has only reinforced the conclusions of the report. The study is sold under U.N. Publication Sales No. E.83.IX.3.

Several governments have recently expressed renewed and substantial interest in the concept of an international or regional peace-keeping satellite. They include: Sweden (Dahl, 1985), Finland (Tornudd, 1986) Norway, Switzerland and other European countries, and Australia and Canada. The official policies and positions of various governments are described in Chapter V.

The Canadian government has, for several years, sponsored a Verification Research Programme. Publications from this program (Canada, 1986a) include a compendium of arms control verification proposals (Crawford et al., 1982), a compendium of Conference on Disarmament papers dealing with outer space and a survey of international law relevant to arms control and outer space. The Verification Research Unit of the Department of External Affairs has produced a general study of the concept of arms control verification (Cleminson & Gilman, 1986), a brochure on seismic verification (External Affairs, 1986), and an analysis of the potential role of astronomical instruments in verification (Rutowski, 1986). Of particular relevance to the peace-keeping satellite concept is the work being by SPAR Aerospace Limited under a large government contract administered by the Verification Research Unit. They evaluated the feasibility of both space-to-space observation (for potential ASAT treaty verification, for instance) and space-to-ground observation (for verification of a potential arms control agreement in Europe). The soon-to-be published Verification Brochure No. 2 will describe the results of these PAXSAT studies, which are outlined in Chapter IV.

A few early articles describing the potential functions of an international peace-keeping satellites were found. The book "Open Space and Peace" contains papers from a 1961 symposium of the same name, which was sponsored by the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace (Ossenbeck & Kroeck, 1964). The book reveals that in 1961, a year after the first reconnaissance satellite had been launched, several people displayed considerable foresight in recognizing the important benefits of the new technology for international peace and security. Several people advocated the immediate transfer of the newborn technology to the United Nations.

Lawyers were among those to realize at an early stage the potential of satellites for peace-keeping. In 1967, an article entitled "Reconnaissance Satellites: Legal Characterization and Possible Utilization for Peace-keeping" was published in the McGill Law Journal (Soraghan, 1967). In the same year, Jerome Morenoff (1967), an active participant of the "World Peace through Law Centre", published a book called "World Peace Through Space Law". He advocated the establishment of a United Nations Reconnaissance Agency (described in Chapter IV).

Various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have pursued the idea of a peace-keeping satellite and many have published articles on the topic. A partial list of these NGOs is as follows: War Control Planners (Kurtz, 1979), Pugwash (1980, 1983), Science for Peace (1983), World Federalists of Canada (1985, 1987), and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (see Jasani, 1982). For information about these and other groups, see Chapter IV.